Wisława Szymborska was known throughout the world through her poetry, referred to as the "Mozart of poetry" by the Nobel committee who gave her the prize in 1996.
If it had depended on Szymborska, we would never have found out when she was born - on 2 July 1923 - or of course where. Her place of birth is in fact not at all clear. Her birth certificate unambiguously states that it was in Bnin. But the poet herself states, quoting family memories, that she was born in Kórnik. Both these places near Poznań in Wielkopolska claim to be the birthplace of the poet. Since today Bnin belongs administratively to Kórnik, the matter has probably lost some of its piquancy.
Wisława Szymborska is the daughter of Wincenty Szymborski and Anna née Rottermund. Her father settled in Zakopane before the end of the 19th century and in 1904 became the manager of the Zakopane estates belonging to Władysław Zamoyski. When it was announced that the Nobel Prize for Literature had been awarded to Szymborska, she was actually in Zakopane, a place with which she is closely associated, and it was here that she received the telephone call with the news on 3 October 1996.
Let us go back to the beginning: in the year of the birth of the future poet, Wincenty Szymborski became the administrator of the Kórnicki estates and the family, with Wisława's six-year-old sister, Nawoja, moved to Kórnik. Soon afterwards, in 1924, Zamoyski died and Wincenty Szymborski, still in the prime of his life, retired and moved for the next five years with his family to Toruń. Wisława attended primary school in Kraków and then, from 1935, the Gymnasium of the Ursuline Sisters. During the war she attended clandestine classes run by the Ursulines. She passed her school-leaving examinations in 1941.
In 1945, she began studying Polish Philology and, a year later, Sociology but she gave up her studies in order to earn a living in the editorial offices of cultural periodicals. From 1953 until 1968 she was the head of the poetry department of "Życie Literackie" in Kraków. She also took it in turns with Włodzimierz Maciąg to run a column called "Poczta Literacka" ["Literary post"], from which a selection was compiled by Teresa Walas and published in 2000 (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków).
It was also in Życie Literackie that she began her column entitled Lektury nadobowiązkowe / Extra-curricular Reading, then later contributing to Pismo, Odra and, since 1993, in Gazeta Wyborcza. As she recalled, even before starting primary school she was already "making money on her poetry". As she shared in an interview in the Życie Warszawy newspaper (1996),
I was always writing little poems. I even made some money on my first little poems. I wrote them at home and when my father liked one of my poems - and it always had to be witty with none of those lyrical confessions - he would take out his purse and pay me. Some 20 groschen probably, but to be honest I can't really remember how much he paid. So I made money on my poetry right from the beginning, when I was five years old.
For Wisława Szymborska the war was a formative experience of youth. The attempt to cope with a disintegration of reality is the starting point of her poetry and the foundation of her later searches. This is shown by one of her early untitled poems, which begins with the words: "We used to know the world inside out". This work, published in 1945 in Walka / Battle (no. 8), a weekly supplement to Dziennik Polski touches on problems that are constantly present in Szymborska's mature works:
We used to know the world inside out:
It was so small that it fitted into two clenched fists,
So easy, that it could be described with a smile,
As ordinary as the echo of old truths in a prayer.
History did not greet us with a victorious fanfare:
It poured dirty sand into our eyes.
Before us there were roads, distant and blind,
Poisoned wells, bitter bread.
Our war loot was information about the world:
It is so big that it fits into two clenched fists,
So difficult that it can be described with a smile,
As strange as the echo of old truths in a prayer.
Szymborska'a post-war poetry of war and mourning published in periodicals then changed into the poetry of the new generation, thinking in accordance with the directives of socialist realism. This phenomenon was analysed in detail and in an interesting way by Jacek Łukasiewicz in the article "Wiersz wewnątrz gazety" (A poem inside a newspaper), published in Teksty drugie (1991, no. 4). Coming out of the war made young people aware that they now found themselves on a different shore. Part of this generation tried to get as far away from death and the disaster of the futile battles of the Warsaw Uprising and decided to put their stake on the "new man" and the "new world". In their faith in the building of a better tomorrow they were not much different from the rest of humanity which was trying to cope with utopia and in its good intentions of improving the world it remained deaf to the symptoms of totalitarianism.
The building of a better world was a threat to the world per se. Many years later, Szymborska wrote that at the beginning she loved humanity. This slogan - love for humanity - deceived so many people around the world. This was the façade of the anti-human systems of the middle of the 20th century. The poet understood that one should rather love individual people. To love meant above all to notice, to feel together with another person. This point of view must cause a rejection of the abuse that was the striving at all costs to fit individuals into the abstract notion of humanity.
The entanglements of people in history; the apparent ordinariness of the world, which turns out to be the greatest puzzle; the suffering which takes away the ready recipes for life but also opens out to its strangeness; the conviction that knowledge depends above all on making oneself aware of one's own ignorance; desire and the impossibility of embracing the paradoxes of existence - these motifs, enriched and processed, will absorb Szymborska from the publication of the volume entitled Wołanie do Yeti / Calling out to Yeti. Also, the formal solutions applied in the poetry announce a consistent artistic strategy: the poetic concept, the bitter irony of the words "war loot" and the succinct language allow her to express pain without hysteria.
Szymborska once wrote about Aleksander Gierymski that "he created art without the help of delusions" and that "this is not the only genre but, if you consider it carefully, it is probably the most difficult". The poet herself became convinced about the difficulty of creating without delusions when she succumbed to Communist propaganda, like so many young people, in the period of Stalinism. Jacek Łukasiewicz, in his book Jeden dzień w Socrealizmie i inne szkice / One day in the life of Socialist Realism and other essays (2006), shows how, in Szymborska's wartime and early post-war poems, the feeling of disaster and despair clashes with hope and with the belief, eagerly aroused within oneself, in the "new order and rhythm" of the times of peace. The first volume, evidence of these dilemmas, which contained the poem We used to know the world inside out / Świat umieliśmy kiedyś na wyrywki, could not be published. The real publishing debut of the poet was the collection entitled Dlatego żyjemy / This is why we live (1952) and the later Pytania zadawane sobie / Questions asked of myself (1954), which contain mainly poems consistent with the binding ideology of the time.
Szymborska'a debut was well received by the critics. And although the reviews from the first half of the 1950s concerned the "correct" poems later rejected by the poet and although the criticisms themselves were usually ideological, attention was paid in them to an important aspect of her work, which was confirmed by her later development: the ability to combine a personal viewpoint with a wider social perspective, the concrete with the generalization. This was underlined by Ludwik Flaszen in Życie Literackie (no. 13, 1953) and he added that the debut volume "strikes us with its maturity also because this is intellectual poetry, built on 'punch-lines', on games with logical meanings, which are served by maximal conciseness and the simplicity of the poetic form".
After the thaw, Szymborska issued the breakthrough volume Wołanie do Yeti / Calling Out to Yeti (1957). In it she moved away from committed poetry in favour of poetry with a philosophical distance, incessantly wondering at the world, suspicious of doctrines and systems. The poet referred to her youthful choices in the speech she made when receiving the Goethe Prize in 1991:
Reality reveals itself sometimes from a side that is so chaotic and terrifyingly inconceivable that one would like to discover in it some more enduring order, make a division into that which is important and unimportant, old and new, hampering and helpful. This is a dangerous temptation because often some theory squeezes itself in between the world and progress, some ideology, promising to segregate and explain everything. There are writers among us who have resisted this temptation and who have preferred to trust their own instinct and conscience rather than all these intermediaries. I unfortunately succumbed to this temptation, to which the first two volumes of my poetry bear witness. Quite a few years have passed since those times but I still remember all the phases of this experience: from joyful faith in the fact that with the help of doctrine I see the world more clearly and more broadly - up to the discovery that that which I was seeing so clearly and broadly was not at all the real world any more but an artificial construction hiding it. (...) Question - is not to know something 'for certain' always a weakness? When I still thought that I knew and understood everything or almost everything, I was in essence more fragile and internally unsteady than today, when the things which I know for certain can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Szymborska's scepticism, developed in Wołanie do Yeti but having its origins in the bitter poems before her Kraków debut, made her above all come to a reckoning with herself. In the poem Rehabilitacja / Rehabilitation, the poet recalls the unjustly accused dead, whom she too had regarded as traitors but she could then see that:
Time to take one's own head in one's hands
And say to it: Poor Yorick, where is your ignorance,
Where your blind trust, where your innocence,
Your 'it will all turn out right', the balance of the spirit
Between unproven and proven truth?
But doubt does not only lead to self-accusations and the settling of accounts with the past. Artur Sandauer called them Cartesian "methodological doubts" because from then on they will be the basis of profound reflection about human beings and the world and will decide about Szymborska's particular rationalism, so aware of its own limitations. Mistrust of all "unproven truths" arouses the imagination, inclines towards looking at reality from uncommon points of view, and towards changing perspectives and making various ones come into collision with each other. In later volumes, Szymborska constantly varies and broadens these perspectives, examining the fate of the individual in the context of the history of civilisation and natural sciences, asking about human beings as links in the evolution of species and showing the relativity of our human measures. Her attitude, however, is never nihilistic: the saying "I know that I know nothing" (or very little) excludes extremes, both uncritical affirmation and radical pessimism. The female protagonist of Z nie odbytej wyprawy w Himalaje / From the trip to the Himalayas I never made convinces us:
Yeti, not only crimes
Are possible among us.
We inherit hope -
The gift of forgetting.
Yeti, at twilight
We switch on a light.
There is as much irony in these words as, despite everything, solidarity with the transient human world, set in opposition to the land of eternal snow, where "there is no moon, no earth" and "tears freeze". In the titular poem from the volume Sto pociech / One hundred comforts, the poet writes about a man who is:
(...) almost nobody,
But he has freedom in mind, omniscience, existence
Apart from stupid meat,
but he is also after all:
In his own way lively and quite active,
For a miserable offspring of crystal -
Quite seriously amazed.
For a difficult childhood in the needs of the herd -
Not at all badly individual.
The ability to have an individual viewpoint of the world and the unease of cognition belong in this poetry to its indisputable values. And also the sense of humor, which is allied with scepticism, ensures distance to all the abstractions and total systems. We can read in "Ostrzeżenie" / "Warning" (Wielka liczba / A large Number, 1976) "Do not take scoffers into space" because:
Space is as it is,
Which means perfect.
Scoffers will never forgive it for that.
They are limited.
They prefer Thursday to eternity
They feel best in the cracks between
Practice and theory,
Cause and effect,
But here the Earth and everything fit tight.
Wit is an indispensable poetic means. It allows us, like in the already cited Sto pociech / One hundred comforts, to consider human nature without pomposity. It enables paradox, which Szymborska mentioned in the poem "Pod jedną gwiazdką / Under one star" in the volume Wszelki wypadek / Just in case (1972):
Speech, don't hold it against me that I borrow grandiloquent words
And then undertake the difficulty of making them seem light.
In all of this poetry, humour alleviates suffering, anxiety in the face of death, which "doesn't know a lot about jokes" (the poem "O śmierci bez przesady" / "Don't exaggerate about death from Ludzie na moście / People on the bridge", 1986). But she unmasks also absurdity and terror, for example in "Pierwsza fotografia Hitlera / Hitler's first photograph", where "little Adolf, son of Mr and Mrs Hitler" is "booboo, angel, poppet, sunbeam" and nobody knows "where your funny little legs will take you, oh where?"
A separate group consists of works parodying defined conventions in art, such as "Kobiety Rubensa" / "Rubens's women", "Koloratura Coloratura" from Sól / Salt (1962), "Mozaika Bizantyjska" / "Byzantine mosaic" from Sto pociech / One hundred comforts and "Miniatura Średniowieczna" / "Medieval miniature" from Wielka liczba / A large number. They were interestingly analysed by Artur Sandauer in his study Pogodzona z historią / Reconciled with history (1968). The poet, showing the limitations of the styles of bygone epochs, knows that her superiority is merely ostensible:
In writing my poems
What in them and in how many years
Will appear funny.
- "Pisane w hotelu / Written in a hotel"
The poem "Sto pociech" (One hundred comforts) from the volume of the same name (Kraków 1967) declares,
He felt like having happiness,
He felt like having truth,
He felt like having eternity,
Just look at him!
Headstrong, you must admit - very,
With that ring through his nose, in that toga, that sweater.
One hundred comforts, after all.
A veritable human being.
In this poem, like in a lens, there are focused the main characteristics of Szymborska's writing. This human being, a solitary person from the depths of history or from our present moment, about whom we know nothing, it could even be us. One from a great number, a generalised human being but not one devoid of history. And he always has his own, even if only one, feature, for example he is wearing a toga or a sweater or he is just crossing a bridge in an old Japanese woodcut. In this space we can meet at the same time without difficulty a Neanderthal man and a citizen of the 21st century. Irrespective of whether written in the first or the third person, he is described from a certain, often ironic, distance. The sense of humour which never deserts Szymborska gives to her questions about the most important things a unique flavour. Could a poem by any other poet end with the "punch-line": "A veritable human being"?
History in this poetry does not seem to be a series of facts but merely the key to our memory of myths. Concrete events almost do not exist at all. But every so often there emerges a sharply defined fragment. Why does it emerge? Because we make strenuous efforts to find it, drawn by the irresistible desire for cognition. Each thing and each moment can be the beginning of understanding and interpreting the world. Anna Kamieńska, in her essay "Heroizm racjonalizmu" (The heroism of rationalism, 1974) remarked:
Szymborska's wit incessantly balances notions and values, but dependably and wisely there ensues from this a very defined scale of values. Maybe she is trying to put these real values to the test of jokes and irony. Pure gold does not fear acid.
Kamieńska wrote that through humorous contrasts and "lightning changes of the point of view (...) this poetry in a way maintains these values in a state of life, upheaval, internal dynamism".
In 2003 there appeared the collection entitled Rymowanki dla dużych dzieci / Nursery rhymes for big children with limericks, "fromvodkas", "betters" and other humorous verses by Wisława Szymborska. But the real treasury of wit and perverse imagination is the series of columns about books entitled Lektury nadobowiązkowe / Non-required Reading, which the poet published successively in "Życie Literackie" (1967-1981), "Pismo" (1983), "Odra" (1984-1985) and "Gazeta Wyborcza" (since 1993). These succinct reviews of books of various descriptions, from "Antologia Palatyńska" (Palatine Anthology) through Vademecum turysty pieszego / The vademecum for tourists on foot to Mały atlas róż / The small Atlas of roses are linked in many ways with Szymborska's poetry: the free mixing of inspirations from the world of science, high and popular culture, the aphoristic language, the original treatment of apparently trivial matters and the lightness concealing philosophical profundity.
Just as Szymborska's feature articles contained an enormous amount of poetry, so her poems often refer to the form of a feature article, essay or short dissertation. There is place in them for discourse and anecdote; for everything that Julian Przyboś regarded as the "descriptiveness and narrativeness" that is superfluous in poetry, which should be "cleansed to lyric poetry". It is characteristic that, in his review of the Sól / Salt volume in 1962 in "Nowa Kultura" (no. 39), Przyboś praised Szymborska's talent but he regarded the splendid Rozmowa z kamieniem / Conversation with a stone as one of the "least convincing" poems and counted it among "arch-feature articles rather than lyric poems". However, a few years later, when discussing the volume Sto pociech / One hundred comforts, he had a more merciful approach to the discursive and reflective poetry which, in his opinion, Szymborska had resurrected. He wrote:
It was only Szymborska who convinced me that it is possible to revive this dead genre and that, perhaps, not only reflectiveness but also narrative quality, and not just lyricism can be the substance of contemporary poetry ("Nowe książki" no. 5, 1968).
That which for Przyboś was a cleansing of poetry to lyric poetry for Szymborska meant a taking away of its space. She rebels against this in her poem Trema / Nerves from the volume Ludzie na moście / People on the bridge:
Poets and writers.
That's what they say.
So poets not writers, so who -
In prose there can be everything, even poetry,
But in poetry there can only be poetry -
In the interview granted to Krystyna Nastulanka, "Powrót do źródeł / Return to the sources" (Polityka no. 52, 1973), Szymborska said:
A great many things interest me. If I think in terms of fable, then I write one, if I think in terms of a feature article, then I write a poem-feature. (...) It would probably be good to regain some of the territory from which poetry has retreated or from which it has been driven out.
The poet's standpoint was praised by Czesław Miłosz, writing in "Poezja jako świadomość" (Poetry as awareness, 1991), a text devoted to Szymborska:
And so poetry has earned an existential meditation, which demands a break away from pure lyricism and the courage to engage in a discourse which is constantly accused of mundaneness. At the end of the last century, Asnyk used to philosophise in verse, but he is not very convincing for us today. (...) A great deal had to happen for the tools to be acquired that would allow a poet such as Szymborska to answer the challenge and the clearly felt need for an intelligent discussion about our wistful dance. Among the new and necessary seasonings are various shades of humour and irony. Szymborska delights us because she is so sharp-witted, because she takes pleasure in juggling with the props of our common heritage (e.g. when she writes about Rubens's women and the Baroque), because she has a great sense of the comic. And she probably consciously undertakes the risk of playing her magic tricks on the border between poem and essay.
What are the subjects of the existential meditation in Szymborska's works? The problem of the influence of history on the fate of the individual, so important in this poetry from the very beginning, leads to deliberations about time, memory, the temporary nature of human existence and the ensuing limitations of our perception. When our consciousness tries to overcome these limitations, there arises a conflict between immersion in life and a distancing viewpoint from outside, "from above life". In Monolog dla Kasandry / A monologue for Cassandra, the ancient prophetess talks about people without the gift of prophecy:
I loved them.
But I loved them from on high.
From above life.
From the future. Where it is always empty
And from where nothing is easier than to see death.
Look at yourself from the stars - I called -
They heard and lowered their eyes.
They lived in life.
Lined with a great wind.
Their fate sealed.
From birth in farewell bodies.
But there was in them some damp hope,
A flame savouring its own glimmer.
They knew what kind of thing a moment is,
Just one, of whatever kind
It turned out I was right.
It's just that nothing comes from this.
Distance to the world is in conflict with the desire to experience the world. Perceptiveness is the source of solitude and despair; seeing the future clearly and not being able to change it turns out to be useless. Similarly, knowledge of the past gives us only an illusory advantage over it, since "we read the letters of the dead like helpless gods" and we have to face up to the expectations of our forefathers:
The most eager look trustfully into our eyes,
Because it ensued from their reckoning that they will see perfection there.
- "Lista umarłych" / "The letters of the dead"
Meditations on time are connected with the question about the role of necessity and chance in life. Did that which happened to us "have to happen" and something else "might have happened"? We are made most clearly aware of this puzzle by the situations of danger in the titular work of the volume Wszelki wypadek / Just in case:
It might have happened.
It had to happen
It didn't happen to you.
You survived, because you were the first.
You survived, because you were the last.
Because alone. Because people.
Because left. Because right.
We do not know why someone survived and no "as a result of, because, after all, despite" will provide an explanation. Just as we do not know why we are born "in my skin not in scales? With a face not a leaf?" (Zdumienie / Amazement), why we occupy this and no other place in the evolution of species. Consciousness constantly oscillates between that which is and that which might be. The wealth of possibilities overawes and enraptures us, at times it seems to be liberation "a reprieve from universal necessity" (Tomasz Mann / Thomas Mann) and at others it becomes torment. In Wywiad z dzieckiem / An interview with a child:
The master rejects with distaste the absurd thought
That a table left unwatched must be a table continuously,
In order for everything, whatever exists,
To have to exist in only one way,
In a dreadful situation, for without egress from itself,
Without pause or change? In a humble from here to there?
A fly in a fly-trap? A mouse in a mouse-trap?
A child does not agree to a world which is "a forbidden possibility", it wants the reality of free transformations, the reality of dreams. In turn, the poem Pamięć nareszcie / Memory at last shows how demeaning these metamorphoses, these other methods of existence realising themselves in dreams, can be. The female protagonist dreams about her dead parents but before they show themselves to her as they were, as she knew them, before "they shine with two lamps of faces", they take on ghostly grotesque shapes and wander around in nightmarish visions, "absurdity forces them into a masquerade". Until, "on some ordinary night":
They suddenly came to me as I had wished them
I dreamed of them as though they were free of dreams,
Obedient only to themselves and nothing else.
In the depth of the image all possibilities were extinguished,
Accidents lost their necessary shape.
Only they shone beautifully, for they were similar.
In Wywiad z dzieckiem / An interview with a child, existence "in only one way" arouses opposition. In the poem Pamięć nareszcie / Memory at last we seek just that one necessary shape, the image of our nearest whom we have lost.
But is there some kind of superior force in the face of necessity and chance, is someone steering our destiny? Szymborska does not give any answers. We can only wonder, for example, who the narrator is in the poem Sto pociech / One hundred comforts, talking about human beings from a cosmic perspective. It is not until the collection Koniec i początek / End and Beginning (1993) that we find a direct question about the "Boss" (Może to wszystko / Maybe all this, 1993), who, even if he does not intervene in what is going on in the laboratory of the universe, maybe sometimes looks at us? In the latest volume, Dwukropek / Colon(2005), the poet conducts Wywiad z Atropos / An interview with Atropos. She tries to find out:
Do you have a superior?
... Next question, please.
"So there will not be an answer from the Pair cutting the thread of life," writes Jacek Łukasiewicz.
There is no such answer in this excellent poetic world, constructed with distance - it is accepted as an opening. (...) We live as if on moving ice-floes, but this is better than hellish order, in which "the conditional mood rules" ("Okropny sen poety / "The poet's horrible dream). ("Jeden dzień w socrealizmie i inne szkice / One day in the life of socialist realism and other sketches", 2006)
Szymborska's imagination moves in the conditional mood, which, as Iwona Smolka notices in the sketch Byt ma swoją rację / Existence has its own reasons: "In the blink of an eye she moves from the world of thought to a reality that is painfully real." In "Pogodzona z historią" / "Reconciled with history" (1979) Artur Sandauer called Szymborska the poet of the borderland because
The action of her poems takes places 'on the border' - between the gaze of the author and the world beyond that gaze; reality is always escaping anew in the poetry from the gaze penetrating it, it is the target towards which we are constantly reaching anew.
The action takes place between life and art, between wakefulness and sleep, between the theatre stage and the wings and the auditorium, between the world of the living and the world of the dead, between the individual and the terrifying, abstract "large number"; finally, between existence and non-existence. Sandauer drew attention to the negative poetics making itself heard in these poems, for example in Dworzec / Railway station, where an event is described which did not in fact take place:
My non-arrival in the town of N.
Took place punctually.
I had forewarned you
In an unsent letter.
You managed not to come
At the appointed hour.
The critic, in comparing the role of negative poetics in Szymborska's work to that applied by Mallarmé, Valéry, Rilke and Leśmian, wrote that
In their work reality succumbs to liquidation or erasure; in Szymborska's it retains its own rights and its precise description is teeming with terms from reports, such as "punctually", "appointed", "forewarned" etc. The dry tone, however, contains a shy yearning for a miracle, a desire for something unpredictable to happen, in whose possibility no one believes. Leśmian shows the miracle which he realises in his imagination; Szymborska shows the miracle which cannot be realised even in the imagination.
For Szymborska, a human being lives:
To his own absence
From all sides
At every moment.
("Urodzony / Born")
And after death he is laid open to his absence from human memory because:
History rounds skeletons off to zero.
A thousand and one is still a thousand.
The one, as if he had never been.
("Obóz głodowy pod Jasłem / Hunger camp at Jasło")
The poet does not agree to such a vision of history which operates exclusively with "A large number" and ignores individual beings. She looks at the fate of the overlooked, slighted by the well-worn hierarchies of importance. In her poem Pieta she talks not about a killed hero but about his mother, patiently receiving in her home another group of inquisitive tourists. Szymborska treats with the same vigilance cases that are apparently trivial or dull, not included in any of the canons of history, but after all - as we read in the poem Może być bez tytułu / It can be untitled - "Even a fleeting moment has a rich past". The gaze of the poet is directed where the teacher of history still does not sense anything and "yawns over his exercise-books" (Pierwsza fotografia Hitlera / Hitler's first photograph). There is no binding division into private and universal: the prehistory of feeling in Miłość od pierwszego wrażenia / Love at first sight is just as important as the discovery of seven ancient cities (Spis ludności / Census).
Tadeusz Nyczek writes descriptively that "Not only the past but also the present appears to Szymborska as a Great Cheese, in which there are more holes than edible matter; in these holes there is everything that is overlooked, omitted, forgotten" (the sketch "Nieogarnione / Unembraced" in the volume Radość czytania Szymborskiej / The joy of reading Szymborska, 1996).
The poet sometimes places our existence on a par with the existence of other living beings, but this allows her to express more clearly the condition and responsibilities of being a human. One of these is the necessity of possessing a conscience, which is not something that troubles animals. In the poem "Milczenie roślin" (The silence of plants) it turns out that the common earthly journey with plants and our knowledge of them is one-sided. Again there appears the impossibility of dialogue but the poet also expresses feelings usually not expressed by others.
In the volume Chwila / Moment, we find characteristic features of the whole of Szymborska's work - it is made up of descriptions of phenomena and inexpressible experiences but expressed nevertheless in the language of the simplest experiences that are known to everyone. We never really talk about them. And most certainly not when we grow up and accept the conventional point of view. The poet incorporates herself into childhood, her own and ours, in order to reveal the beauty of the everyday, under which is concealed uncommonness.
The poet sees existence, however, as a temporary "stay outside of eternity" (Wersja wydarzeń / A version of events), "a shimmering river which flows out of darkness and in darkness disappears" (Krótkie życie naszych przodków / The short life of our ancestors). A human being has too little time to embrace the mass of phenomena; crushed by the surfeit of the world, he is at the same time frightened of the void. "I won't have time to distinguish everything from the void," writes Szymborska in the poem Urodziny / Birthday. And she is still amazed that,
Nothingness changed radically also for me.
It really turned itself inside out.
Where have I found myself -
From top to toe among the planets,
Not even remembering what it was like not to be.
- "Nicość / Nothingness"
The amazement at the fact that one is alive and at the form in which one exists in large measure stems from a confrontation with the world of nature. On the one hand we feel kinship with other beings, because "the same star keeps us within reach" and "we cast shadows by the same rights" (Milczenie rośłin / The silence of plants), but on the other hand we are divided by an impassable otherness. Human disquiet, the desire for contact and dialogue comes up against the indifference of nature (this does not fully refer to animals - Małgorzata Baranowska writes about their role in Szymborska's work in her essay Poezja istnienia / The poetry of existence. Awareness in Szymborska, to cite Sandauer in Pogodzona z historią / Reconciled with history, (1979) once again, is
inclined outside herself - to the exterior - towards the object. Hence all perceptions are an attempt to identify with the perceived thing. To see a rose is - to want to be a rose. To see a stone is - to try to enter the stone.
But even the language itself, its metaphors and construction, which allow us to think about "a conversation with a stone", turn out at the same time to be misleading:
I knock on the stone's door.
It's me, let me in.
I have no door, says the stone.
Szymborska's poetry captures many ungraspable and it would seem contradictory states of our minds, which work in each, even the most common, moment.
In this volume there appears a certain exceptionally important theme of humanity and one respected over the centuries: the Platonic triad of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. Obviously, Szymborska's poem has to be ironic, perverse and contrary. These ideas, through constant usage, have long been "worn out". The poet thinks about the "Ideal Being", which for some unknown reason has ceased to be enough for itself. From the poem "Platon, czyli dlaczego" (Plato, namely why),
Why the devil did he start seeking impressions
In the bad company of matter?
To this of course there is no answer. There is no possibility of using the Platonic triad in all its perfection.
In the volume Chwila / Moment we encounter fleeting private experiences and experiences known tothe whole world. There is a poem here about the terrorist attack on New York, "Fotografia z 11 września" (Photograph from September 11) and also the not so publicly exposed but no less important poem "Jacyś ludzie" (Some people). We live after all on a planet of exiles. And the poem speaks of them thus:
Before them, still some not-this-way road,
Not the bridge that should be
Over a river that's oddly pink.
Nature offers resistance to understanding but inter-personal relations are also problematical. The poem Pokój samobójcy / The suicide's room, like Rozmowa z kamieniem / A conversation with a stone, undertakes the theme of otherness, to which there is no access - here it is the different nature of another person and his secret:
You probably think the room was empty.
But there were three chairs with strong backrests.
There a good lamp against the darkness.
You think there were no books, pictures, records?
You think that at least a letter explained something.
But if I tell you there was no letter -
And so many of us, friends, and all fitted
Into the empty envelope leaning against a glass.
Pokój samobójcy / A suicide's room perhaps most forcefully show the brittleness, the unreliability of human bonds which Szymborska writes about in her love poems. It is significant how many of them describe parting - from the famous lyric poem Na wieży Babel / On the Tower of Babel to Cień / Shadow, which is stylised to be vulgar. Ironic stylisation is a frequently used device in these poems - and again: it relieves the pathos and helps to distance pain. The poet dresses emotions in the costume of farce (Buffo), compares the history of lovers to a bourgeois drama (Bez tytułu / Untitled) and breaks through sentimentalisation by intentionally exaggerating it. In the beautiful erotic poem "Jestem za blisko, żeby mu się śnić" ("I am too close to be in his dreams"), irony gives way to melancholy, a hushed tale about the feeling of limitation and separation that is brought by a love that would seem to be fulfilled. In other places the harmony is disturbed by the awareness of transience or it is broken by death. In the poem Sen / Dream from the volume Sól / Salt, the female protagonist is visited in her dreams by her dead lover; here there appears an elegiac tone, which is very powerful in the first, youthful and later works by Szymborska.
The task of bidding eternal farewell to someone who has passed away is considered in Pożegnanie widoku / Farewell to a view from Koniec i początek / End and beginning:
I take note of the fact -
As if you were still alive -
That the shore of a certain lake
Has remained as beautiful as it was.
One thing I do not agree to.
To my portrait there.
I survived you to this extent
And only to this,
To be able to think from afar.
In Radość pisania / The joy of writing the salvation is provided by "the possibility of preserving - the revenge of the mortal hand". A similar praising of art can be found in the poem Ludzie na moście / People on the bridge. But can anything really be preserved, can we make "time stumble and fall"? Autotomia / Autotomy, a poem dedicated to the memory of Halina Poświatowska, seems to doubt it:
When in danger, the sea cucumber divides in two:
One self she gives away for the world to eat,
With the other self she escapes.
She falls suddenly apart into death and rescue,
Into fine and reward, into what was and what will be.
We can divide, it's true, we also can.
But only into body and unfinished whisper.
Into body and poetry.
On one side the body, on the other laughter,
Light and swiftly silent.
According to Czesław Miłosz, Autotomia / Autotomy questions the maxim ars longa, vita brevis, the conviction about the longevity of art: He wrote, "In Szymborska's poetry, we divide ourselves not into body and surviving work but into body and unfinished whisper, poetry is no more than an unfinished whisper, laughter that swiftly falls silent" ("Świadectwo poezji" / "The testimony of poetry", 1990).
Despite everything, the poet seems to believe in the strength of this whisper. Maybe, paradoxically, it is precisely in this form that art has the chance to endure? In the end, this remains a puzzle. In the poem Niektórzy lubią poezję / Some people like poetry, to the question ' "what is art?", the author, faithful to her scepticism, replies: "I don't know and I will cling to that like to a saving handrail". Saving, because not only is it the source of her creative disquiet but it also defends her from despair.
The attitude of Wisława Szymborska, her approach to writing and to life, is well illustrated by her Nobel Lecture, The Poet and the World, delivered by her on 7 December 1996. She said in it:
I sometimes dream of situations that can't possibly come true. I imagine, for example, in all my audacity, that I have the opportunity to chat with Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavours. I would bow very low before him, because he is, after all, one of the most important poets, for me at least. Then, I would grab his hand. "There's nothing new under the sun", that's what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem which you created is also new under the sun, because no-one had written it before you did. (...) And Ecclesiastes, I would also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you are planning to write now? Something which will complement your thoughts, or maybe you are tempted to contradict some of them now? In your earlier poem you mentioned also joy - so what if it is fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? (...) I do not suppose you will say, "I have written everything, I have nothing more to add." There is no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.
The Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, also a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, on the occasion of the awarding of the Prize to Szymborska, wrote "...it seems to me that the most authentic voice that speaks in her poems is the voice of an oracle, the voice of a Sybil, expressing most fully her uncommon personality, even though Szymborska has nothing of a Sybil within herself. What I mean is that as a poet she speaks with a voice that is at the same time authoritative and absolutely credible'.
Author: Krystyna Dąbrowska, December 2007, English translation: © Tadeusz Z. Wolański, with contributions by Małgorzata Baranowska